Falling In Love With Wrestling, Part 4: I’m Looking For The One

After catching the wrestling bug during WWE’s late ’80s peak, Pradeep recalls his vigilant viewership of their search for the ‘next Hulk Hogan’.

Lex Luger

You can read parts one through three here.

In late 1992 to early 1993 the WWF was in a state of flux, the 7 year boom period was over and the company reached a crossroads. 

A whole host of stars that were bona fide main eventers had moved on; Ric Flair returned to WCW, Roddy Piper and Randy Savage went into semi-retirement, while Davey Boy Smith, Sid and the Ultimate Warrior had either quit or were fired. 

The biggest start of the 80s, Hulk Hogan launched an ill-fated return in an attempt to re-create the magic of the 80s, which resulted in an impromptu and unmemorable reign from Wrestlemania 9 to the King of the Ring 1993.

As a boy approaching his teenage years it was clear that the magic of Hulkamania that was a huge part of my youth, had run its course. I was fully vested in the WWF’s attempt to search for the “next Hulk Hogan”.

In fairness to Vince McMahon and his team, this search had already started in the late 80s, and this latest article reflecting on my childhood memories of WWF analyses some of the leading contenders. For a myriad of reasons, none grasped the proverbial torch that had been passed on to them. 

The Ultimate Warrior

Perhaps the contender who came the closest to taking Hogan’s mantle was a performer who in many ways was a stark contrast to Hogan. His high-energy approach, painted face and an overall look of something that had leapt out of a comic book gave him a loyal following. 

At times he has been unfairly criticised for his perceived lack of technical ability. Readers of my previous articles will note that while I was no fan of the Warrior, he was involved in some memorable matches. Examples of this included contests with the Honky Tonk Man (Summerslam 88), Ravishing Rick Rude (Summerslam 89), Hulk Hogan (Wrestlemania 6) and Randy Savage (Wrestlemania 7).

Did the WWF try and soften the Warrior character too quickly in order to broaden his appeal? Fans in 1990 would note that we began to wear less face paint for example. 

Perhaps the real problem was the manner in which he won his only WWF world title. Usually the next big babyface in wrestling is crowned by defeating a monster heel, such as Hogan defeating the Iron Sheik in 1984, or Daniel Bryan defeating HHH in 2014.

However the Warrior defeated the biggest babyface in wrestling. Once it was clear that Hogan wasn’t going to become a huge film star, he returned to the WWF in 1990 and the Warrior would forever be in his shadow.

I should admit that when Hogan left once again in 1992 and the Warrior returned after a 9 month hiatus, I was pleased to see a familiar face return. However despite repeated attempts in 1992 & 1996 to re-start the Warrior experiment, a combination of personality clashes and politics saw to it that diminishing returns with the character had set in.  

The Warrior never really recaptured the initial magic of his 1988-90 run, nor did he manage to take the next great leap forward as the face for the WWF into the mid-90s and beyond. 

Sid

The Apter magazines called it early, Sid was the second coming of Hulk Hogan. 

Sid Vicious Was Never Going To Be The New Hogan

I recall reading the Apter magazines reporting about this huge heel monster and his feuds with Sting in early 90s WCW. As Sid headed to the WWF in 1991 it wasn’t hard to understand why the “man who ruled the world” could easily be seen as a successor to Hulk Hogan. Tall, blonde, tanned, muscular and full to the brim with personality, he was the prototype for what Vince McMahon looked for in his top babyface. 

Sid stood tall next to Hogan on his WWF debut at the conclusion of the Summerslam 1991 “Match Made In Hell” (ironically after the aforementioned Warrior was fired as he returned back stage at the conclusion of the same match!). Throughout 1991 he delivered his unique brand of Justice to the top WWF heels from the Undertaker to Jake Roberts. However the initial momentum proved to be short lived as he was halted by a series of injuries.

Perhaps the real problem is that Sid didn’t really want to be a babyface and was much happier playing the heel. After predictably turning on Hogan (after Hogan illegally pulled him over the top rope at the 1992 Royal Rumble costing his the chance to win the WWF title – can you blame Sid?) which led to a disappointing Wrestlemania 8 main event, he stayed for a short period before injuries and politics meant that Sid would move on – as did the idea that he could ever be the man to take Hogan’s throne. 

However there is an interesting footnote to the Sid story in the WWF. He returned in 1996 as once again Vince McMahon saw him as a main event player, but this time around they didn’t force him to play the vanilla babyface role. The seeds of the Attitude Era were beginning to sprout and cheered by a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd in New York, won his 1st WWF world title by breaking the rules and besting a babyface HBK (who in turn, and quite ironically, was also engaged in a failed attempt to become the next big babyface) at the 1996 Survivor Series.

For Sid perhaps it was ultimately a case of what might have been. Was the crazy heel character 5 years ahead of its time? Could you imagine if Psycho Sid had stayed injury free and was given a proper run in 1996-1998? As a piece of trivia, he is the only man whose Wrestlemania appearances were in the main event (8 and 13) which give you some insight into his potential star power that was never fully fulfilled.  

Lex Luger

Exit Hogan in 1993 and enter “The total package”.  In 1989 I remember my first look at Lex Luger as he was pitted directly against Hogan in the magazine article below. 

Pro Wrestling Illustrated : Who's More Awesome - Hogan or Luger? (October  1989): Bill Apter: Amazon.com: Books

Where the WWF failed to make a success of a babyface Sid, they were determined to push the boat (or should I say bus) out for Luger. Initially he arrived (via the World Bodybuilding Federation, the WBF…an ill-fated McMahon venture in 1991-92) in the WWF as “The Narcissist”, a mid-tier heel. A character which despite an early feud with Mr Perfect, never really caught on.  

Without doubt though, his appearance at the Yokozuna Body Slam challenge on board the USS Intrepid, was one of the most memorable face turns in WWF history. Like Hogan in 1984, the narrative was built that Luger had “seen the light” and changed his ways, coming to his country’s rescue in its time of need against the dastardly foreign heel I Yokozuna. These stories just wouldn’t work today….

Make no mistake, of all the early to mid-90s suitors to Hogan’s babyface throne, I was fully on board the hype for the Lex Express. Despite a massive initial push however, the attempt quickly ran out of steam. People were tired of the big blonde muscular patriot. Fan’s tastes were changing as they placed further emphasis on in ring skills…put simply the audience preferred Bret Hart. 

Luger never really recovered from failing to win the WWF title from Yokozuna at Summerslam 1993. I recall it being a very odd finish to a match (Lex won by count out) and the idea was placed in my head as a young viewer that Lex couldn’t get the job done. 

I always felt that Luger’s heart wasn’t really in his patriotic character after the failure of the summer of 1993 and his credibility took a further hit when he failed again to beat Yokozuna at Wrestlemania 10. As he tumbled down the pecking order of importance in WWF he eventually, and memorably returned to WCW as Nitro debuted against Raw and the Monday night wars commenced. Overall Luger was one of those performers whose look and physique always meant he would be given an opportunity that his in ring abilities and personality never really justified. 

Diesel

The size of Sid combined with the babyface push of Lex, Diesel was one of the longest serving WWF champions of the 90s. Making an initial appearance as the monstrous bodyguard of HBK, to tearing through the WWF roster in his first 15 months, there wasn’t a lot that the character played by Kevin Nash did wrong. 

If anything the WWF, in their pursuit into making him the next big babyface repeated the same mistakes they made with Warrior, Luger and Sid. They simply softened his character too much losing sight of what audiences first liked about Diesel. 

The WWF was going through a slump commercially during Diesel’s reign which lasted 358 days, so unfortunately his period as the WWF champion coincided with falling attendances, which was in stark contrast to Hogan during his peak run in 1984-1987. 

The WWF wasn’t quite sure the direction it was supposed to go in during this era either, as characters became more cartoonish. Diesel didn’t have a deep heel roster to go against as he was matched against the likes of King Mabel. 

By the time the WWF corrected the course for the character it was too late, Kevin Nash left the WWF for the WCW in the summer of 1996 as he went on to from part of the New World Order (NWO) faction and actually aligned with Hogan himself, changed wrestling forever. 

The ‘Anti-Hogan’

Throughout the 90s, there stood one man who Vince McMahon continually returned to after his experiments to find the next Hulk Hogan failed.

Bret Hart wasn’t blond or overly large and muscular. Hailing from Canada, Bret was a smaller, more technical wrestler with the ability to tell great stories within the ring rather than relying upon an ability to deliver great promos. Bret wasn’t Hogan and that was one of the reasons that fans liked him so much.

Too often, the WWF had pushed superstars too quickly but Bret, who had been with the federation for 7 years before he won the WWF title was always seen as a man who had persevered and deserved the rewards given to him. It was telling that the most reliable star of the WWF in the 90s was the one who also had the most acrimonious split with the WWF following the 1997 Survivor Series.  

As luck would have it the next big star was never destined to be given the huge push that the likes of Lex or Sid were initially given. Instead Steve Austin was originally seen as nothing more than a solid mid-tier act who could provide solid matches.

Ultimately and quite ironically the next big superstar who arguably surpassed Hogan didn’t turn out to be a wholesome, god fearing patriot. The next boom period in the WWF’s Attitude Era was led by a bald headed, beer drinking, anti-authority, expletive ridden character known as Stone Cold.

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